Tuesday, October 17


Dropping Pennies in Water, Holy or Otherwise

I recently came across a book on a British island, little more than a rock. The island lost 1/2 its population in the 1740's, owing to small pox, and the population had dwindled to about 90 people by the 1750's. The last natives requested evacuation from the island around World War I.

The island in question was a fascinating outpost of Gaelic culture, shaped by the Romans, the Celtic monastics, and the course of Scottish history.

I was reading an account of the visit a kill-joy Protestant minister who was visiting the island to further the protestantization of its inhabitants. In his account of the visit, published in the mid-1700's, he recounts, with displeasure, the practice of dropping coins in holy wells, which remained popular even amongst the Protestant:

It was once a fundamental article of faith in this isle, that the water here [at the holy well] was a sovereign cure for a great variety of distempers, deafness particularly, and every nervous disease. Near the fountain stood an altar, on which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before they could touch the sacred water, with any prospect of success, it was their constant practice to address the Genius of the place with supplication and prayer. No one approached him with empty hands. But the devotees were abundantly frugal: The offers presented by them, were the poorest acknowledgements that could be made to a superior Being, from whom they had either hopes or fears. Shells and pebbles, rags of linen or stuffs worn out, pins, needles, or rusty nails, were generally all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though rarely enough, copper coins of the smallest value. Very frequently the whole expence of the sacrifices was no more than some one of the little common stones that happened to be in the Pilgrim’s way. In te memory of our fathers some injudicious Protestants, who retained more or less of the old leaven, made a practice of leaving such trifling donations near the fountains in the other western isles, I mean those which were in every one of them dedicated to some Saint, Angel, or Divinity, to the Lord, to Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to St. Columba, St. Cuthbert, &c. or Michael. But we have great reason to doubt, that the donations made in the days of Priest-craft and credulity, by those well meaning believers, who had recourse to such miraculous waters, were equally insignificant.

So, my question: Everyone drops small coins in ponds and fountains and wells, almost out of habit.

Is this where that habit came from?

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